Millennial activism: Student group calls on NUS to divest from fossil fuels

Members of Fossil Free Yale-NUS and Stand (Students Taking Action for NUS to Divest) at EarthFest, a sustainability festival on Jan 20, 2019. PHOTO: ROBIN HICKS/ECO-BUSINESS

SINGAPORE - An unusual meeting involving the National University of Singapore's (NUS) investment office took place last month.

Instead of meeting potential donors or its fund managers, it met a group of passionate students.

The topic? Divestment of the university's endowment from fossil fuels - a cause aimed at tackling the rapidly growing problem of climate change.

Students representing Fossil Free Yale-NUS (FFYNC) and Students Taking Action for NUS to Divest (Stand) said they met administrators on March 12 to discuss the issue, bringing with them a petition calling on NUS to divest from fossil fuels.

The petition had nearly 800 signatures, but that was not enough. FFYNC said the university told them there was not enough support for divestment.

The journey for FFYNC has been one of mixed hope and frustration since it started in 2017.

"I think people are now more aware of what divestment means, and that institutions can and should be held accountable," said Ms Melody Tay, 23, a final year environmental studies undergraduate at Yale-NUS College.

But the first iteration of FFYNC, she said, was slow going, with pressure on the Yale-NUS administrators being ineffective as its endowment was tied to NUS.

It was only after they teamed up with Stand last year and decided to take on NUS's endowment of $4 billion together that they saw some progress.

Even so, progress has been limited and slow. The March meeting with the investment office, for example, had been requested since last October.

FFYNC is the first to bring the student fossil fuel divestment movement to Singapore. It has had to adapt its strategy to suit the local context, said Yale-NUS second-year student Jay Wong.

For example, while protests, marches or sit-ins are okay in other countries, the available tactics here are more limited - like writing an opinion piece for The Straits Times or asking for meetings with university administrators.

FFYNC said in a statement that it was disappointment by the investment office's response.

"This is an opportunity for NUS to be a leading institution for climate action. Yet, for all that NUS pitches about sustainability, this makes us wonder: Does NUS really care about the future of the planet that us students will inhabit?"

It added that it hopes to continue working on fossil fuel divestment with greater support from the university.

In response to The Straits Times' queries, an NUS spokesman said that it does not invest directly in fossil fuels, but has a "very small exposure" in related areas held by fund managers.

The spokesman added that NUS is "committed to sustainable investment", and would maintain dialogue with student groups and convey their concerns to its fund managers.

Ms Tay said that climate action is not always the easiest, but drastic changes and sacrifices now are necessary for the long term.

"Divestment is inevitable. You either choose to do it now, and move to clean energy, or you're forced to, and then it's too late," she said.

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